The Indian media is a misnomer. It’s mostly via media. It’s the best trifle-a- minute regurgitation of insane sound bytes. It’s a nonstop cacophony of epithets that don’t unite but divide. It doesn’t inform. It deforms the information system.
With minimisation of news and maximisation of valuation, Indian news media has become the manufacturer of both news and its ingredients. It has given up its traditional role of collector and disseminator of correct and credible news. The unnatural death of a popular film star has now become the perfect parameter for judging the success and failure of a media organisation.
In New Age journalism, media mojo lies in changing consumer choices rather than providing credible corroborations. Contentious content is the fastest selling news product de-jour. Instead of making viewers better informed, the decomposed composition of a moving frame accompanied by ferocious octaves hawking inanities as exclusive news from a toilet or a rooftop is the basic requirement of news illiteracy.
Unsubstantiated and sensational personal details about the food habits and health of an individual are touted as the most impactful parts of the everyday news narrative. Television and digital news have lost both in terms of content and credibility. Fiction is served up as facts. News channels devoting over 70 percent of time on just one individual or a sordid incident for months, reflects the growing redundancy and irrelevance of serious and independent news journalism.
The fatal fallout is not due to news famine anywhere in India. In fact, post COVIDd-India is the most fertile hunting ground for getting news that matters and information that influences policymakers. From numerous sagas of success to stories of savagery are waiting to be told and shown. The ground level reporting about how a nation of 1.3 billion people is coping with the Coronavirus in the remotest parts of India could serve as motivational models for others to follow.
But Indian TV channels are salivating to learn about the habits of Indian celebrities, known or yet to be known, and how they are spending their time at home gaming, dancing and cooking. Unfortunately, the Indian news establishment is defined by new medium, which has sprouted all over the country in the form of social and electronic platforms. An idiot box, a palm size smart phone or an iPad are vehicles to spew titillating, sadistically scintillating and corrosively captivating clips of news and venomous views.
Ever since the electronic media replaced its print counterpart as the most sought after vehicle for promoting markets for goods and services, pecuniary compulsions dominated the composition of the news basket. The Television Rating Point (TRP) is the tool that decides the fate of a news bulletin or programme.
Based on opinion collected from less than 50,000 households, TRP is the mirage of total TV viewership. With all the rating agencies and regulatory institutions dominated by media owners or advertisers, the credibility of data about the quality and quantity of audiences provided by any organisation is suspicious. Yet in the mad rush for chasing TRPs, noise erases news in newsrooms.
Lately, the coverage over Sushant Singh Rajput's death defied all the principles of objective and fair reporting. Many TV channels took extreme sides but provided very little information. In fact, a section of the media even played the role of investigator, prosecutor and judge.
The stories about SSR weren’t confined to the how-why-and-where of the incident, but focused on the when-and-where his death could influence an electoral verdict. Investigating agencies were driven by planted "explosive evidence" provided by the news channels instead of digging out the truth themselves.
L' Affaire SSR proved Marshal McLuhan absolutely right. Almost five decades earlier McLuhan wrote, 'Medium is the message'. For the media philosopher, the quality of the message is decided not by the accidents and incidents taking place in society.
It is tailored and coloured by the ideological choices and ownership character of the medium. Unlike in the past, the media mediums are now commercially and ideologically aligned. Once upon a time, the Indian media was led more by professionalism and less by profit. Those who had minimum corporate interests owned a large number of media houses.
As India globalised through marked induced reforms, the maximisation of valuations and minimisation of news became the twin mantras for the success of a media house. Invisible and low-profile owners were replaced by highly paid CEOs, who converted the promoters into market mavens and influencers.
Yet, print media was able to retain its credibility and acceptability because content needs words not voice. Thankfully, print news hasn’t been fully replaced by TV noise. However, the nexus between the corporate and New Age media is damaging the architecture of information as a whole.
Surprisingly, none of the professional agencies provide total viewership of news channels. They only provide the TRPs or absolute number of impressions. Even then, according to rough estimates, not more than eight million (less than one percent of total viewership) people watch prime time news in all news channels on a daily basis. On the other hand, around 450 million readers go through a newspaper every day.
But the medium has now acquired multiple faces, arms and eyes. Newspapers or TV channels are no more the mediums for carrying messages. Wireless communication carries info-bytes faster than the speed of a supersonic jet. India alone has over 560 million internet users, 34 million Twitter members and over 350 million Facebook accounts.
An algorithm written by Team Zuckerberg transmits messages to billions of people worldwide. YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn and other social media platforms deliver messages that can cause riots or create celebrities. Heads of the government roll out red carpets to new medium owners than they ever did to proprietors of newspapers with large circulations.
It is the information and the content generated, conceived or invented by the new medium that has shaken the trust of readers and viewers in the media. The money minded communications outfits are like start-ups, which don’t need any experience, gravitas or analytical skills. India now boasts of 850 TV channels, including over 300 news channels.
They provide employment to over 80,000 people. Most of them haven’t been taught even the basic principles of journalism. They have to only provide suitable input to the anchors who become the mediums to convey the message laced with their characteristic colour and style to their target audience. The formula has generated both moolah and might, so far.
Information is no more power. Revenue is. The medium has become an instrument which carries advertisements and propaganda camouflaged as news. McLuhan once announced that advertising “was the greatest art form of the 20th Century” and defined as “an environmental striptease for a world of abundance”. Indian medium is just getting there. It serves news in just black noise with puffery, not sense, as the news neophyte’s remote control.
(The writer can be contacted at email@example.com Twitter: @PrabhuChawla)